By Jessica Easthope
There’s no avenue Najmah Nash hasn’t explored in search of justice. This job she’s taken on is still new, but she’s in it for the long run.
“I have a hashtag on Instagram, no days off,” Nash said. “This is what I’m doing all day every day, this is my life.”
What she wants sounds simple, for school buses transporting children with disabilities to be safer.
She wants drivers and monitors to do their jobs undistracted and for their equipment to be regularly inspected.
But, more than anything, she wants what happened to her 6-year-old daughter, Fajr, to never happen again.
Fajr was on her way to summer camp in Somerset County, New Jersey, on July 17, when her bus hit a series of bumps and she slumped over in her wheelchair.
Fajr was strangled by her wheelchair’s harness.
It’s a flashback she can’t stop replaying.
“The woman on the phone is now crying and I realize this is serious,” Nash recalls. “Something really went wrong with my child in such little time.”
Fajr had Emanuel Syndrome, a rare genetic disorder causing physical and developmental disabilities, which would make it impossible to pick herself back up.
“It was the worst day of my life,” Nash said. “I received a call around 9/10 AM that Fajr arrived at Claremont Elementary School unresponsive. I just started screaming asking her, “What do you mean?”
Fajr started flailing and shrieking, and even kicked the window of the bus, according to court documents.
However, the monitor hired to watch her was facing the front of the bus and on the phone, wearing earbuds.
By the time she got to school, Fajr was dead.
“They were working on my child for an hour,” Nash said. “I talked to her and I prayed to her and everything else, I can’t put into words.”
Visions of paramedics performing CPR on Wali Williams’ lifeless daughter are burned into his head.
He said as scared as he was in that moment, what sickened him was how scared Fajr must have been in her last moments.
“Me picturing what was happening to her in that moment, it bugs me out,” Williams said. “I have to close my eyes and change my train of thought. Watching them do CPR was painful for me, she’s fragile. When I think about her fighting for her life and the bus driver on her phone it makes me angry.”
Wali isn’t the only angry parent who’s lost a child the same way.
In Florida, a 14 year old girl with cerebral palsy suffocated to death while on a school bus in 2018. The bus monitor was sitting in front of her but didn’t notice until it was too late.
In that same year, a 20 year old Detroit student with autism died after having a seizure on his school bus. The driver called 911 but didn’t help him up after he fell over in his wheelchair, and was wedged in between the seats with his airway restricted.
A second grader in Florida turned blue and stopped breathing while suffering a medical episode on her school bus in 2012. The bus driver nor the aide called 911.
Maggie Moroff, The Senior Special Education Policy Coordinator at Advocates For Children Of New York, fields complaints daily from families with disabled children.
“It’s a whack-a-mole game,” Maggie Mora, a senior special education policy coordinator at Advocates For Children of New York, said. “You deal with one problem and then another one pops up a few weeks later.”
Mora said it would take more than laws or federal regulations to stop this from happening.
“There isn’t enough staff to staff up the buses and support the kids,” Mora said. “There isn’t sufficient training, so even if the legislation was in place there would still be these problems. It’s not that the will isn’t there, it’s that the way isn’t there.”
For Nash, who has been reaching out to politicians and other elected officials, she has yet to see that will. So far, no one has called her back.
“I haven’t received a response from no one statewide, no one locally, no senators, no governors, no councilmen or women,” she said.
Nash, Williams, and other activists would like to see an overhaul of the transportation for children with special needs on school buses, new safety protocols and strict repercussions for employee violations.
Montauk Transit, the bus company responsible with transporting Fajr, has already had its contract with the Franklin Township Board of Education renewed for the 2023 – 2024 school year, but Nash is asking for it to be terminated immediately.
Both Nash and Williams refuse to accept silence as an answer. Their efforts to get Fajr’s law petition into the hands of lawmakers won’t be in vain, they said.
“This is Fajr’s legacy, it’s hard to say because that’s my daughter,” Nash said. “But my faith is what’s keeping me head level. This is for all other children, this is Fajr’s legacy, so look forward to phone calls, the time is now we can’t wait for another tragedy.”
If you would like to help Fajr’s Law into the hands of legislatures, you can sign a petition on https://www.change.org/p/fajr-s-law.